Nairobi, Kenya: African elephants, Loxodonta Africana, play a cat-and-mouse game with farmers, often raiding their crops. The raids are risky—farmers are known to retaliate against the elephants—and according to a study by researchers working with Save the Elephants (STE), the elephants try to avoid getting caught by approaching farms swiftly and foraging intensively. The research, published recently in Animal Behaviour, could help biologists better understand the elephants’ “landscape of fear”—and aid conservationists’ efforts to effectively mitigate crop-raiding.
“Crop-raiding presents elephants with the trade-off between maximising foraging efficiency while in farmland and avoiding the risk of retaliatory attack by farmers,” said lead author Georgia Troup, a behavioural ecologist at the Australian National University, Canberra. “Understanding the behaviour from the elephants’ perspective provides further insight into why they may engage in crop-raiding.”
STE, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the Tsavo Trust fitted fifteen female and fifteen male elephants with GPS tracking collars in 2016 and 2018 that allowed the researchers to track their movements. Using STE’s tracking system, they were able to calculate the elephants’ speed as well as locations. “This is one of very few studies that have used this type of tracking data to analyse fine-scale movements of elephants specifically in and around farmland,” Troup said.
When an elephant’s GPS coordinates indicated they had visited an area with farmland (identified via land cover data from the European Space Agency), the researchers studied the animal’s movements during the surrounding 24 hours. They found 12 of the 30 elephants in the study group regularly raided crops. The raiders typically visited farms at night, making a speedy beeline for the crops before spending several hours foraging. During a raid, the elephants slowed down, and their movements became more indirect and twisting as they searched for food. In the hours after a raid, they typically sped up and travelled in straight lines as they made their getaways. The rapid, unswerving paths the elephants took when they absconded from the farms were similar to the fast pace they set when nearing waterholes or crossing highways.
The results provide insight into the elephants’ “landscape of fear,” or the mental maps animals carry with them that include information about safer areas as well as where predators and other threats—such as an angry farmer—are located. The elephants can use this knowledge to assess how risky a raid might be, and whether it’s worth the prize of an easy meal.
Troup said the findings could be used in the future to test the effectiveness of deploying selected elephant deterrents (such as beehive fences or buffer zones) outside the periphery of farmland to discourage crop-raiding and to monitor when crop-raiding events are happening just from analysing collared elephant movement behaviour.
“By using their fine-scale movement patterns to further understand how an elephants’ landscape of fear varies in response to their temporal proximity to farmland, we can implement conflict-mitigation techniques that target elephants when they are most fearful or anxious, which is arguably the time at which they are most likely to be deterred from entering farmland,” she said. “More widely, we hope this study will highlight how an understanding of animal behaviour can assist in conservation planning efforts.”
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, said “Africa’s human populations are rising fast, and previously wild land is increasingly being turned over to agriculture. We need more work like this to help understand the dynamics of crop-raiding elephants, so we can help farmers avoid problems and work towards a harmonious coexistence between humans and elephants.”
Key findings from the study include:
- Crop-raiding elephants adapt their behaviour to play risky cat-and-mouse games in danger zones
- Elephants make beelines for crops before spending several hours foraging.
- During a raid, elephants slow down, and their movements became more indirect and twisting as they search for food
- Elephants may consider the nutritional gain from crop-raiding outweighs the risk of getting caught
The study was recently published online in the journal Animal Behaviour
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About Save the Elephants
Based in Kenya, Save the Elephants works to secure a future for elephants. Specialising in elephant research, they provide scientific insights into elephant behaviour, intelligence, and long-distance movements and apply them to the challenges of elephant survival. Education and outreach programs share these insights with local communities as the true custodians of this rich heritage. The team works towards a future of harmonious coexistence between humans and elephants. High-tech tracking helps plan landscapes while low-tech beehive fences, among other tools, provide farmers with protection as well as income. To battle ivory poaching, Save the Elephants teamed up with the Wildlife Conservation Network created the Elephant Crisis Fund to identify and support the most effective partners in Africa and in nations with ivory markets to stop poaching, thwart traffickers and end demand for ivory.
Photo caption: Understanding the behaviour of bull elephants like Sagalla – pictured here on the outskirts of farmland in Tsavo, Kenya, provides further insight into why they may engage in crop-raiding. Photo courtesy of Elephants & Bees.